Verbum Ultimum: A Return to Intellect

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 4/30/15 8:14pm

At the April 27 meeting of the faculty of arts and sciences, faculty members discussed potential changes to distributive requirements, class meeting times and grade inflation. Notable ideas include reverting the distributive requirement system to be similar to the one that was used prior to 1992, which used broad-based academic categories, and adding additional time slots for morning and evening classes. Some professors expressed concerns about steady grade inflation — biology professor Mark McPeek, in particular, made a compelling argument in favor of raising grading standards.

These academic questions, polarizing as they may be, warrant the careful consideration of students and faculty alike. We agree that a Dartmouth education could benefit from some structural revisions. Yet we would have expected academic rigor to go hand-in-hand with substantial improvements — not just alterations — to the way students learn and how they experience their courses. More flexible distributive requirements and lower medians are not proxies for holistic reform.

Spending four years attending 8 a.m. classes or receiving lower grades will not result in a meaningful academic life. We do not accept the notion that a more taxing education is a better one. We doubt that College President Phil Hanlon’s vision of a “24-seven learner” is the one who closes out the library every night.

The proposed changes do not address the problem of accordion-style learning, the type of learning in which students cram for exams or write final papers the night before. It is a pattern no doubt encouraged by the pace of a 10-week term, but this is not the type of education that the College should offer.

The goal of any liberal arts education is to challenge students to think critically, take risks and grow intellectually alongside their peers. Assessments and homework are just one component of such an education. Increasing the intensity risks undermining this goal by limiting time available for personal care, extracurricular pursuits and social bonding — all of which are undeniably important to student well-being and overall achievement.

Experiential learning initiatives are much more promising avenues to promote academic enrichment. The economics department, for example, recently announced a new course for fall term 2015, Economics 70 — a two-section offering that will use the winter interim period to provide a study abroad component in either Peru or Poland.

Traveling abroad is, of course, an exceptional example — a focus on engaging and consistent learning is possible in Hanover as well. Even less resource-intensive changes, such as including collaborative or creative projects, oral assessments and small discussion sections in one’s curriculum, go a long way toward teaching students both specific course content and broader intellectual skills. These skills, not the mastery of content necessary to receive an A in any given course, make a Dartmouth education valuable.

If the College fails to keep the core values of a liberal arts education in mind, then no amount of tougher grading, earlier classes or “academic rigor” will restore Dartmouth to its former place at the top rung of the U.S. News and World Report best undergraduate teaching list.